Juditha triumphans or Sex, Death and Mezzos (Barbican, 2 November 2016)
At long last! Marcon’s take on “Vivaldi’s triumphant celebration of sex, death and boundless glory”, as the Barbican site blurb advertises it, reaches London.
Upon telling my mum I was on my way to seeing a Vivaldi piece, she quipped “Oh, flowers and birds”. Excuse me?! I know he’s most famous for his musical descriptions of weather conditions (Weather at 6 with the Red Priest) but around here we already know Vivaldi is the most rock’n’roll Baroque composer. More rock’n’roll is only being struck down by an implacable cold, as yours truly was just yesterday, and valiantly plowing on because nothing says Sacred Military Oratorio more than an all female cast and all female choir.
Juditha: Magdalena Kožená
Holofernes: Delphine Galou
Vagaus: Ann Hallenberg
Ozias: Francesca Ascioti
Abra: Silke Gaeng
Andrea Marcon director | Venice Baroque Orchestra
Last night I wrote a 2000+ word report on this performance only for WP to eat it up like the flesh eating plant it can be. I suspect it was my digs at the ugly and pointlessly meandering Barbican that did it 😉 tough shit, Barbican, even the dismay at finding myself tired and sick as dog at 4am with my loquacious entry wiped out won’t stop me from bitching about the Brutalist monstrosity that you are.
But reports of a 2000+ words entry might give you an indication of how much I enjoyed myself. I urge you to see it for yourself if/when it comes in your neck of the woods, which is as follows:
- 8 November at Bozar in Brussels
- 4 February in Urbana, Illinois
- 7 February at Carnegie Hall in NYC
Whilst selling your first born might be slightly OTT, you have my blessing if you’re thinking of pawning off your mother-in-law 😉
My records show just how much I talk the talk instead of walking the walk: it’s my first time with a full Vivaldi operatorio since Griselda 2 years ago. But what a piece! As soon as the martial timpani start to roll, the trumpets blow their piercing trills and the girls’ choir launches its war cry you know you’re in for a ride. I understand the overture was lost so the original Juditha started differently. I can’t imagine how the overture could’ve topped this intro.
One good thing about the Barbican is that the auditorium, like most venues built since the ’70s, affords very good visibility from every seat. The seats themselves are comfy and legroom is plentiful. I myself had coincidentally picked a spot on the Barbarian Side (Holofernes and Vagaus) and needed just a bit of adjustment at the beginning (it’s a big venue for Baroque voices).
Let me begin by stating my appreciation of Marcon and his team, starting with his insistence (judging by other renditions of his) to keeping the all women’s choir. I initially liked the mixed choir favoured by Sardelli and Fasolis but now I’m sold on this.
Vivaldi gives solos to practically all the wind instruments, the mandolin and of course, the violin, and there are 4 theorbi for our enjoyment. A special word from me goes out to the timpanist, who looked like he had great fun in his interventions. Everything was very stylishly played and most pleasing to the ear, so those of you who enjoy the sounds of the Baroque orchestra in itself should try to make that extra sacrifice and catch this as I’m certain you’ll love it.
Next up is Kožená. As some of you know, the mezzo lover that I am, I have studiously been avoiding her so far. But since the night featured two of my favourite singers in this repertoire and since I genuinely like the oratorio, I had no choice but to take my chances.
I have to admit that my criticism of her has been unfair. She is actually a good singer, with a true mezzo tone (recently plumped up? sounded a lot rounder and more burnished than in (earlier) recordings). Her chief skills were a deft employment of dynamics (here mostly volume-wise) and a very reliable, vibrato-less trill (quite an interesting production, too; enough to have stayed with me so that I think I could pick it out of a line-up in the future).
Perhaps she and Marcon had made a pact whereby Juditha’s arias were slower than usual. Since she’s not exactly a stage animal, my mind occasionally wondered off. But when things got frantic I noticed she had to focus more and didn’t project quite as loudly as she did otherwise (unsurprisingly, her voice is bigger than her more Baroque oriented colleagues’). Nevertheless, she met the technical demands of the role. There were some trills and pyrotechnics I thought you don’t usually hear in a Baroque context but mostly she kept idiomatic.
I’d have liked a bit more abandon but I think that just isn’t her personality, nor is Juditha necessary the character to bring such things out. Still, sometimes, even when Juditha was fuming with outrage and hatred she just went for louder rather than more intense. Only once did she let things flourish a bit – oddly during the aria where Juditha muses on the impermanence of things. Somehow she got so much into it that her face changed to the point she looked 10 years younger. Quite an unusual thing to witness (I had my opera glasses and watched the singers closely during their arias).
But all in all, hearing her was a positive experience. I don’t know that I’d rush to her next recital but if she sings something I enjoy I might think about it. I most certainly won’t avoid her again.
Speaking of unsual things, the Barbarians, Juditha veterans that they are, brought a unique vibe to the Barbican, the sort I don’t think I have witnessed before and I have seen some exciting things there. They were both so relaxed and good humoured, the atmosphere was a curious combination of the chummy quality recitals can have and top quality professionalism. I have mentioned Hallenberg’s cheerfulness before but since this was my first time seeing Galou live I didn’t know she was also 5 by 5.
But let’s talk a bit about Juditha, because since it’s in Latin the finer points of the libretto have hitherto been foggy to me. Now with surtitles I could elucidate the gaps. It goes something like this:
Girl Power Choir/Virtuous Bethulian Women: War! Death! Vengeance on the enemy!
Holofernes: victory! My brothers, you have fought well but as conquerors we must show mercy to our defeated enemy, ’tis only gentlemanly.
Vagaus (Holofernes’ squire): hey, boss, I bring good tidings.
Holofernes: please speak.
Vagaus (winks): boss, there’s this hot local babe wants to speak to you.
Holofernes (lifts an eyebrow): do tell me more.
Vagaus: she’s top drawer, boss, I think you should see her pronto.
Holofernes: please bring her in. But tidy the tent a bit before you go.
Vagaus goes to where Juditha and her companion, Abra, are waiting.
Vagaus (friendly): fair local matrons, my lord is ready to receive you. Please don’t be frightened by his ferocious appearance, he isn’t only a glorious warrior but also a most just and kind master. Feel at home, you’re among good people here.
Juditha: (to Abra) what arrogance!
Juditha enters the tent.
Holofernes: (aside) wow! I knew Vagaus had good taste in women but WOW! (to Juditha) Gracious lady, excuse our coarse military manners. Please be my guest and take a seat.
Juditha (not wishing to appear too easy): I’m but a humble daughter of my unfortunately defeated Fatherland, I’m not worthy of sitting in the presence of such a great lord.
Holofernes (seductive): oh, but you are! Please sit.
Juditha (coldly): it’s against good manners…
Holofernes: Sit, sit, sit! Please, my fair matron, take a seat.
Yes, he has a jaunty mini tantrum (Sede, o cara) which he spends enticing Juditha to take a seat. Oh, for the good old days when Barbarian army commanders were raised well and sounded as smokey-seductive as Galou 😉
Juditha eventually decides it’s wiser to comply (or maybe she gives in a little to that velvety voice – because Holofernes doesn’t shout or really get angry (even less so the gallant way Galou is singing him), he’s confident and keeps it seductive throughout. Therefore, Galou regaled us with her easily and finely spun, impressively long lines of legato and slender, dark honey middle that should make many a Juditha forget her duties to god and country 😉
We’ll have to wait to experience her skills at portraying madmen and eccentrics via that surprisingly (for a contralto) clear and piercing top some other time. Can’t have it all – except in a recital (or two) at the trusty Wigmore Hall? One can hope! The good news is her voice is very well captured by recordings so you’re not missing that much at home beside that almost gregarious stage presence).
Holofernes (all smiles): so how can I honour a most lovely visitor?
Juditha (offers him a religious tract): have you heard the good news?
Holofernes (takes the tract but keeps his eyes on her): the best news is your presence in my tent.
Juditha (with dignity): I came to beg mercy for my Fatherland.
Holofernes: you ask much, fair matron. But you shall have it – and more. I was just saying to my boys that it’s time to put a stop to war and make peace with the good citizens of Bethulia. Would you like to have dinner with me? I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate peace between our people!
Juditha (coldly): I’m just doing my duty to my country and to my god.
Holofernes: but it would make me so happy if you accepted! I’ll order the best dishes in the land.
Juditha: (aside) the best dishes in my land, bastard. (aloud) Food? Pah! After much famine and hardship we have learned not to pay attention to such trifles. Besides, our god has placed a lot of restrictions on foodstuffs…
I understand Juditha is a Bethulia Liberation Front militant but, my god, does a storm cloud hang over her head or what? She’s such a wet towel to Holofernes’ (and Vagaus’, who’s obviously smitten as well) eager gallantry. I wish she was more dishy like Dalila, they’re both secret agents with similar missions, are they not? She doesn’t do much seduction, honestly. She’s dignified and honourable and loyal to her country and god.
Kožená and Galou played them like this – Juditha cold and severe and Holofernes so suavely solicitious at one point even Kožená couldn’t keep a straight face any longer and broke into an amused grin. But her favourite moment was obviously the recit where Juditha vividly describes her skills with a blade.
Warriors of the world – and Octavian – please keep your swords out of the bedroom. Remember most accidents happen at home. Also, try to exercise caution when a gorgeous stranger of the defeated enemy shows up at your door for sexy time. The moral for our times: risk assessment is essential.
Speaking of caution, Vagaus, this disaster is all your fault, mate. What in the world were you thinking pushing your boss in bed with the newly conquered?! We know what Vivaldi was thinking – Armatae face et anguibus, Vagaus’ show stealing vengeance aria at the end of the oratorio.
And stolen it was, Hallenberg soaring with her characteristic organic manner of singing – not so much a vocal soloist but voice as integral part of the orchestra. Armatae is a fiendish aria to begin with – what with the leaps, the dramatic inflections the text asks for and the fast and furious coloratura, yet she took it to another level by matching the other instruments’ in tone and dynamics at every step. It really doesn’t get better than this. To be fair, Vagaus is such a fun role. He even has an early aria about the joys of wining and dining (O servi, volate) to the accompaniment of all 4 theorbi and little else (cembalo?).
I don’t know what happened to Basso. If there was an announcement between April and now I missed it. Though I was sad to miss her, Ascioti (as Ozias) did a very good job (solid, sonorous tone and excellent diction as well as good acting). Gaeng (as Abra) also sang with aplomb and was appropriately vicious towards the Barbarians.
Some comments on outfits: Kožená wore a red dress with pockets. They seemed rather an accessory than efficent tools but pockets they were. Hallenberg had on her blue/purple frock and comfy gold pumps, whilst Galou wore a version of her pant and frock/trenchcoat with the spikiest heels. I couldn’t even begin to imagine walking on something like that but she might as well, as her posture is remarkable even by singer standards (she didn’t even use the backrest of her chair for most of the night). I also realised she’s not as tall as I initially thought. Being very thin with a big head will cause that perception. Ascioti had a wide leg pant and very long vest-y combo that some singers favour in recitals. I seem to remember a Vagaus with a wide leg pant somewhere on YT, so Juditha attracts these 😉 Gaeng won the most daring (in a way) and amusing outfit with her zebra dress. But Marcon himself thought a touch of style would keep the audience interested – his black shirt had a slit at the back which revealed a white inset.
Some comments on the audience and the Barbican (yes, I’m unrepenting): if the ROH public is the most formal in town, the Barbican audience favours the retired university lecturer attire (check shirt and wool vest, optional receeding yet wild hair and thick rimmed glasses). I had one on each side of me as well as one in the row below, who only lifted his head from the programme to shush a young professional couple (another feature at the Barbican) who, inexplicably, started to chat during the intro to one of Holofernes’ arias. Also naturally silver or white bobs seem to be all the rage with women aged 50+.
For being a fancy “cultural centre”, sporting spaces for music, theatre, film, fine art and photography exhibits, as well as a wide range of the now inevitable dining spaces (as if audiences can’t go for three hours without stuffing their pieholes), the Barbican could really up their game when it comes to the toilet experience. They’re all on one level which is reached by being forced to spin in pointless circles and there’s always a queue and the stalls are often out of order. Did I mention it’s ugly as sin and you have to be careful through which entrance you exit or you might lose your way in the depressing cement mess that it its outside balconies (or ramparts)?
But venue aside, this was a most pleasant performance experience, for which I once again thank Marcon and team plus the choir and the soloists. We need more Vivaldi and by extension, more mezzos and contraltos 😀 Yes, I really wish there was another performance I could’ve attended, even as broken and sick as I am today.